Netiquette: How to do social media right

With our virtual lives blurring into our real lives, good netiquette is as important as good etiquette. 

By Julie Beun

Online dos and don'ts
istockphoto.com
Canadians lead the world in Internet usage (45 hours a month). Our virtual lives have become our real lives, and with that comes a whole new set of rules.

"New rules have formed because of the public nature of social media," explains Ben Watson (@bitpakkit), vice-president of marketing for the Vancouver-based social media platform HootSuite (@hootsuite). How do we know what's OK and what's not? Take a look at our netiquette rules for social media fun.

Netiquette: It's not all about you
Sean McCoy, a former salesperson, opened Aperitivo, a funky tapas bar in Kanata, Ont., with a Twitter (@aperitivokanata) and Facebook presence. "Look at Justin Bieber," he says. "Everything he does on Instagram is on his Facebook page and on Twitter. That wouldn't work for anyone else. The first rule of social media? Don't just write about
you. It's about putting something out to the world that is relevant and engaging in one form or another."

So, unless you're the Biebs, posting about nothing but Fabulous You is like being the girl at the party who only talks about herself, says Tamar Weinberg (@tamar), author of The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web (O'Reilly Media, 2009). "One in every five tweets, give or take, can be about you. You have to have the mindset of, 'If I were at a dinner party, would I only talk about me?' And while you're at it, save the 'Why does this always happen to me?!' stories for your best friend. It's not that the rest of the world doesn't care; it's just that they don't really care." (On the other hand, your relationship is all about you: Is it social-media proof?)

Me, Inc.
"I just love your brand. So fun and feisty," my girlfriend Stacey said recently. "My brand?" I asked. "Yes. Everyone has a brand with social media!" she explained. "It's how you portray yourself and how much people buy into it. In a sense, it's what people think when you leave the room."

In other words, are you a 30-year-old who is raising twins in Red Deer, Alta., and loves all things ridiculous? With friends, that's just you. But because you broadcast yourself online to people who don't know you personally, it becomes your brand.

Fun? Yes. Dangerous? Yes times two, because most of us aren't in public relations. "People are quick to judge, including employers, colleagues and friends of friends," warns Louise Fox, one of The Etiquette Ladies in Toronto. She says that sarcasm and off-colour jokes are OK – if that's your brand. But even still, be careful. Sarcastic jokes and this kind of humour can be misunderstood online, because there are no facial cues. What's more, adds Weinberg, your witticisms can be rebroadcast without your permission. "Anyone can do a screenshot of your Facebook update and send it out to the world."

And that's not all: Your racy photos may be reposted without your permission on other sites with your name and a link to your Facebook page. What happens in Vegas doesn't stay there anymore; it gets posted on Facebook. Just ask Prince Harry.

The netiquette of friends requests

Ever walk up to a stranger in the produce aisle and ask to see their Cancun holiday pics? Me neither. Yet sending friend or connection requests on Facebook or LinkedIn to people you don't know (but want to) is like that. "If you feel compelled to connect with someone, add a personal message explaining why," urges Watson. The exception is on Twitter, where you can follow or unfollow people without explanation. "With Twitter, people can and should learn about you, see what you care about and decide why and when to connect with you from there."

Photobombing and other disasters

Posting that picture of your workmate photobombing the boss at the Christmas party was hilarious, but tag your colleague at your peril. "You could be jeopardizing someone's future," says Fox. He suggests this rule: "If it's OK in the family album and you're sure it doesn't offend anyone, it's OK online." In other words, be considerate. Not every picture of your baby, dog, renovation or friend in an unflattering pose is worth posting. (Here, however, are 9 ways to help you look your best in pictures.)

My sob story, part two
Recently, Fox learned a Facebook friend had become a widow. Although they had never met in person, Fox had a front-row seat to the woman's heartache through her excruciatingly personal updates. "Frankly, it's difficult to respond to that," she says. "How much does 'Sorry to hear that' really help?" While your closest friends would understand, some things may not be appropriate for a larger network of people, explains Watson. When someone is ranting instead of sharing or discussing online, it can come across a bit like someone standing on the street corner, shouting into space.

I've got somethIng to sell you
It seems like a natural fit: You have a great product and a potential market of 500 Facebook friends. "Thanks, but no thanks," Weinberg wrote in her widely circulated The Ultimate Social Media Etiquette Handbook. "Facebook is about real friendships and not about business." In fact, adds Watson, your friends will just hide you from their timelines and you'll be talking into space. (However, here is how to use Facebook to get to a better job.)

Internet gossIp gIrl
People love gossip – unless it's about them. With social media, the risk of gossip spreading increases exponentially, particularly because mocking others' misfortunes can be done anonymously. "Do you trust the person you're speaking to when you gossip?" asks Weinberg. "I've seen confidential conversations made public because the person doing it is not giving any thought to it. If you're worried about a conversation getting out, make it clear from the outset that it's not to be shared. Otherwise, you can assume it will soon be public."

ThIs just got personal
In 2009, when Elayna Katz didn't like the service at an Ottawa restaurant, she complained, then posted a negative review online. Restaurant owner Marisol Simoes fought back with social media, sending lewd emails to Katz's boss and setting up a salacious fake account in Katz's name on a dating website. The result? Simoes got a jail sentence and was widely scorned through The New York Times and "Dr. Phil." It's a cautionary tale about taking disputes online, says Watson. "When it becomes personal, pick up the phone or get together. Have a one-on-one discussion to resolve the issue."

Don't be a flamIng troll
While comedians have hecklers, the Internet has trolls: self-entitled anonymous critics who stir up controversy while they hide behind their keyboards. Some, such as Anonymous, are quasi-professional in exposing the indiscretions of public figures. Others are simply cyberbullies who denigrate others to build their own reputations and fame, says Watson. "In YouTube comments, too often the discussions degenerate into trash-talking, jabbing and being sexist or racist in an ad hoc, anonymous fashion. There is little accountability, and it's even perceived as acceptable in many forums."

No less hurtful are flamers, those cyberbullies who dump their opinions on others' profiles, websites or blogs. Why? Because they can. "There's an adage, 'I was up late last night. Someone was wrong on the Internet,'" says Watson. "Don't be that guy."
If you're angry, go for a walk, advises Fox. And don't respond. "If you want to flame someone, don't. A statement they make is not an invitation to offer your opinion."

Watch the abbreviatIons
"RU 4 realz? IDK, some ppl have no manners! #dontbelieveit." Writing style matters. Fitting clever thoughts into 140 characters is tough, but consider this: Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (@jack) rarely uses short-form vernacular in the 12,000 and counting tweets he has sent to his 2.2 million followers. "You may have a really good point, but if you don't deliver it in a good way," says Fox, "people won't consider it."

When you've gone too far online...
The Internet does many things, but one thing it doesn't do is censor posts that could land you in trouble. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
  • If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. That was the lesson a man in Ontario learned last year when he lost his job after posting that it was about time Amanda Todd died. (Tragically, the teen committed suicide after being cyberbullied.)
  • Don't "friend" your boss then insult him on Facebook. One well-known 2009 incident involved a young woman referring to her boss as a "pervy wanker." He fired her on Facebook. The same thing happened to a Swiss woman who was "too ill" to use a computer but was caught updating Facebook.
  • Loose lips sink careers, says Tamar Weinberg (@tamar), author of The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web (O'Reilly Media, 2009). She recalls a man who recently made negative comments about the company he works for on a work-related blog and lost his job. It may seem innocuous to you, but if you're undermining your company's brand, it isn't.
  • Just because you think it's true doesn't make it safe to say. The rule of thumb is that if you say something to cause another person to lose status, income or reputation, you could be sued. Already, several Twitter users have landed in court for slander and libel.
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